Fish biologists talk escapement goals

Representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska Board of Fisheries reiterated the role that escapement goals play in the peninsula’s commercial and recreational fishing regulations at the Soldotna Chamber Luncheon.

 

Soldotna’s Sportfish Area Management Biologist Brian Marston and Commercial Fisheries Area Management Biologist Pat Shields were joined by Board of Fisheries member Robert Ruffner, of Soldotna, to give an update on 2017 fishing regulations at a Tuesday luncheon.

“The backbone to our fisheries management is … escapement goal management — that means the number of fish that gets by us, commercial use and sport, and actually make it to the spawning grounds. It means the fish that escaped all of our supper tables and made it to spawn,” Shields said.

Reaching this year’s escapement goals can mold the regulations for both commercial sockeye salmon fishing and recreational king salmon fishing throughout the summer months, Marston and Shields said.

“We try to shoot for a range of fish. … If we’re below that range, we’ll restrict fisheries. If we’re within it, we’ll open the fisheries with restrictions and if we’re above the goal, we liberalize those restrictions,” Marston said of the king salmon sportfisheries.

In manipulating the restrictions, Marston said he could take steps such as allowing or prohibiting the use of bait in order to achieve escapement goals for early and late-run Kenai River kings.

Fish and Game recently transitioned the Kenai River’s king salmon counting method to count large fish only — fish measuring longer than 34 inches total. The large fish metric makes it easier for Fish and Game biologists to distinguish king salmon from sockeye salmon on the in river sonar, making for a more accurate count.

The early run has an escapement goal of 3,900–6,600 large king salmon with a preseason estimate of 6,500 fish, Marston said. The late-run has an escapement goal of 13,500–27,000 large king salmon with a preseason estimate of 33,000 large fish.

“Once we get to the late run after June 30, our escapement goal is larger, but so is our run size,” he said. “On the late run, if we go above the top end of the (escapement) goal, I can add time, about seven days, to that fishery.”

In the commercial sockeye salmon fishery, the various commercial fishermen throughout Cook Inlet have regular periods on Mondays and Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Shields said, but time can be added or removed depending on the trajectory of the sockeye salmon escapement.

“This species on this river has more interest than the rest of the species in the rest of the state combined,” Shields said. “…There is a lot of interest, people who want to know why, on July 22 (for example), are you letting commercial fishermen going out and getting fish? … We’re poker players, folks, we bet on the come.”

To keep the projected escapement between the goal of 1.1 million and 1.3 million sockeye salmon, Shields said, the run needs to be managed throughout the season.

“We can’t wait until we’ve gotten to the escapement goal and then start fishing. Believe it or not, we can’t catch every fish that comes through. …It doesn’t work that way at best we can probably get 40 – 50 percent,” Shields said. “We ensure that we get enough spawners on the spawning grounds, to get enough eggs in the gravel so we can be here, year after year, talking about, arguing about, debating about who should get to catch them.”

From the Board of Fisheries, Ruffner said that the escapement goals are really good targets, making Alaska different than other states.

“It has served us well,” he said. “I would also say that, coming from a science background … I think my one of my big take-home things that I’ve learned is that trying to balance the biology and economic and social issues that we have with fish is really challenging and it’s not cut and dry.”

Reach Kat Sorensen at kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com.

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